Ending at Sunrise – Week 28 of the 52 week short story challenge

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As the sun sinks down below the horizon, she picks up her bag and checks that all the contents are there.

She already knows that nothing is missing. She has a list and checks it several times as she packs her bag each day – just in case.

Order is paramount.

Her flat is small and immaculately tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. The cutlery and crockery from her evening meal have already been washed and put back in the cupboard.

She does this every day.

As part of her routine, she looks in the mirror, making sure that her hair is brushed and that she has no lipstick on her teeth.

Not that anyone would notice if she did have lipstick on her teeth.

Her lipstick is pale. She tried a brighter colour once but her mother told her that she looked like a tart so she wiped it off quickly.

Her mother is gone now and there is no one to comment on her lipstick or how she dresses, but the spectre of her mother’s past stops her from making any changes – ever.

No one looks at her as she walks in through the staff entrance; she has become invisible to her customers and fellow workers.

She knows them all though.

She listens to their conversations but ensures that no one catches her eavesdropping. That would be against the rules. Her rules.

The rules are for her own protection. That was what her mother told her years ago when they first came to live in this tiny flat. A flat that was paradise compared to where they had been before.

They are a motley crew, her customers. Some are old and lonely, using the warmth of the place to stave off the return to a cold home. Others are young; student types with their eyes glued to their mobile phones, giggling at something they have seen and sharing it with their friends. Often they have been drinking; loud and jolly, filling the place with noise and energy.

Her colleagues are less varied. They are all younger than her, and carry out their work with a levity born of the knowledge that this job is just a stopgap; a step on the way to something so much better. Except for the manager. He is tense and angry, feeling that he deserves better than this.

Her coat and bag are put neatly inside her locker after she has extracted her uniform and laid it carefully on the wooden bench. She has two overalls and when she gets back from work each day she washes her uniform and hangs it up to dry in the tiny bathroom of her tiny flat.

Taking one last look in the mirror by the door, she smoothes down her overall and pats the pocket where she has put her keys to the staff cupboard.

The shape of the keys reassures her. A token of normality in a frightening world.

Out in the corridor, she keeps her head low as she passes the manager.

‘The disabled toilet needs cleaning and some uni kid has thrown up all over one of the tables. Get it sorted – the staff have been waiting for you to come in.’

She nods obediently as she unlocks the cupboard and takes out her work tools; the mop and bucket, disinfectant and catering size cleaning roll.

Waiting for her to come in?

No one ever waits for her to come in.

Like a spectre herself, she moves quietly round the tables, mopping up messes, clearing away the detritus of a fast food diet, not even wondering anymore how people can waste so much food when there are people starving all over the world.

The tables are clean now; the toilets too.

She surveys her work with pride although she knows that she will have to start over again in a few minutes.

As she takes her mop bucket out to empty it, a young man bumps into her as he leaves the toilet.

‘Watch where you are going old woman!’ he says as he brushes invisible dirt from his ripped jeans.

‘Sorry, so sorry.’ she whispers and then regrets opening her mouth as he looks at her with something far worse than disdain.

‘Get back to your own country you dirty Paki. We don’t want your sort here stealing our jobs.’

Hearing the sound of raised voices, the manager appears and pushes her into the kitchen whilst apologising to the youth. He offers him a free drink by way of appeasement.

On automatic pilot, she throws away the soiled cleaning roll and empties her mop bucket, wiping them out carefully before returning them to the cupboard.

As she pulls another bin liner from the roll, the manager reappears. He does not look happy.

‘How many times do I have to tell you not to wind the customers up? This is your final warning.’

He turns on his heel and goes back to the kitchen. He does not realise that the other staff laugh at him behind his back, or that he is about to be moved to another branch in a less salubrious part of town and will never get the opportunity to deliver that warning.

She knows the signs. She has seen it all before. Another day draws to an end.

As the sun rises, she takes her bag and coat out of the locker and heads home to the safety of her tiny flat again.

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Three Siblings – Week 4 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I came back to work after a week’s holiday and found the Bennett family in residence. Two girls and a boy; they were withdrawn and several of my colleagues were finding them difficult to deal with. As a consequence of this – and because I was in the middle of my social work training and considered best placed to take on the ‘awkward’ children, I was allocated as their key worker.

The first few days were spent going about my usual routine of getting children and young people out of bed, dressed and down for breakfast. As a female member of staff I usually worked in the girls wing, but as one of the few females who would volunteer to get the boys up I had the chance to observe all three children without being too intrusive.

Ray was the eldest of the three; at fourteen he was in the middle of our group of boys but he was very much apart from the lumbering big boys constantly flexing their macho muscles, the voice-breakers who turned from squeaky to bass at a moment’s notice and the little ones who had some very severe behavioural issues.

Ray constantly sought the company of his sisters; twelve year old Angela and eight year old Suzanne. The three of them were frequently found in a small and very self-contained huddle in the TV room or at the far end of the veranda when told they had to go outside for some fresh air.

After three days of trying to get to know my key children, I stayed on for a couple of hours after my shift ended in order to sit and read their case files.

It was not comfortable reading.

For the past six years the Bennett parents had been arguing over access arrangements following their divorce. Their mother had custody of the children after fleeing domestic violence and spending a period in a hostel. She had never reported her husband’s abuse to the police and there were no third-party evidence records, Mr Bennett was denying any form of abuse and demanding that he have weekly access to his children.

The children refused to see him.

They had been to family court on numerous occasions and it was accepted by Mrs Bennett that the children would attend a centre where their father could have supervised access. Mr Bennett refused this however. He wheeled out a number of family friends who attested to his good character and what an excellent father he had been. They also claimed that Mrs Bennett had mental health problems and was using the children to get back at her ex-husband.

At the most recent court appearance the judge had made an order that the children should go out to dinner with their father once a week without supervision. Mrs Bennett was distraught. The children – led by Ray – flatly refused to go and the judge ordered that they should be taken to a children’s centre as their mother was ‘obviously’ having a disruptive influence on them.

They came to us in just the clothes they stood up in. A hastily appointed social worker had been to their house and collected clothes and belongings but their mother was in such a state that the suitcases contained a strange jumble of items that had to be supplemented by our meagre stock of clothing and toiletries.

Until things were resolved the children were not allowed to have visits or even phone calls from either parent. Letters and cards were to be opened by staff and vetted before being given to the children. The social worker had been charged with compiling reports on all three of them, and, as the key worker, had to compile daily reports based on my own observations and those of my colleagues when I was off duty.

What had I observed so far? Ray was quiet; he didn’t join in with the usual banter and he sought the company of his sisters wherever possible. Angela was equally self-contained but Suzanne was more sociable; joining in with the younger girls when they chatted about hair and clothes and TV. A look from her brother or sister would bring her away from the group and back to their sides.

We were one of the few centres in our local authority to have a school unit on the premises; educational assessments had so far revealed that all three children were of above average intelligence but would not participate in team activities and would not talk about their past. Of the three, Suzanne was the most outgoing but any attempts to get her to talk about her home life were quickly prevented by the interventions of Ray and Angela.

We all tried to break through to them but after two weeks we were still no closer to understanding what had sparked their defiance in the courtroom. The social worker had been to visit their mother several times but she was just as withdrawn and reluctant to say anything other than that the children wanted to stay her and that she was frightened of her husband. The social worker stated – rather gruffly – that Mrs Bennett seemed unable to say anything specific about what it was that her husband had done to her.

Unable,  unwilling or terrified?

The good thing about training to be a social worker for two and a half days of my working week and coming in to carry out usual duties for the other two and a half, was that it was easier to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were currently studying play therapy as a means of getting children to open up about their experiences. The more I learned, the more I wondered if this was a way of finally getting through to the Bennett children. I talked to my tutor and he gave me some books to study, together with a group of therapy dolls; mother, father and three children.

I had an idea that the key to it all was to get Suzanne alone, so with the blessing of my manager, I arranged for her to be released from morning classes for a couple of hours. I found out later from the teachers that Ray and Angela were rather distressed when Suzanne left the room and they had to be quite stern in order to prevent them from following her.

I had set up one of the smaller conference rooms with cushions, bean bags, toys and the dolls. I also laid on refreshments in an effort to make the atmosphere as pleasant as possible. Colleagues were advised not to disturb us. I’d spent the previous evening reading up on everything I could relating to the use of dolls in play therapy and although I was nervous, I also felt exhilarated at the thought that I might possibly get to the bottom of what was disturbing the Bennett children.

It wasn’t easy. Suzanne had been well-schooled by her siblings. The wall that the three of them – and their mother – had built up was almost impenetrable.

Almost.

I used the dolls to talk about my own family. My father coming home from work, my mother cooking dinner, my sister reading a book and my brother and I playing with his cars.

All very normal and harmless.

Suzanne picked up the father doll and put him to one side. She put the mother doll and the three children together on the sofa I had made from cushions. Then she picked up the father doll again and looked at him.

She looked at me.

‘Would you like to say anything to the father doll Suzanne? Or to any of the other dolls?’

Suzanne looked back at the doll. I could see that this was difficult for her and being a novice at play therapy, my tutor’s advice about not going too far or too fast was ringing in my ears.

Suzanne threw the father doll face down on the carpet.

‘You are a bad man. You make Mummy cry and you come into mine and Angela’s room at night. Ray says we mustn’t tell though.’

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Why mustn’t you tell?’

‘Ray says that Daddy will kill Mummy if we tell. He saw Daddy in the kitchen with Mummy. Daddy had a knife. He hurt Angela and made her cry too. We don’t like Daddy. That’s why we won’t go to dinner with him.’

She started to cry then; frightened because she had told the big secret. Frightened that her Daddy was going to hurt them or even kill their mother. I put the dolls to one side and we hugged before polishing off most  of the sweets.

Leaving Suzanne building a car out of Lego, I went next door and spoke to my manager. He called the social worker – who was out of the office as usual – so we decided that the next step was down to us.

I went down to the classroom and collected Ray and Angela. They looked sullen and even more withdrawn than usual. From the glances that they gave Suzanne, I could see that they knew something had happened.

My manager took the lead. He explained that adults often try to get children to keep secrets but that some secrets are bad, and the adults have no right to make children keep them. He told them that a part of our job was to protect children from bad secrets and keep them safe from people who frighten them.

They were truly frightened and now we knew why. My manager looked over to me and indicated that I should let them know that we understood their secret.

‘I think that your Dad has asked you to keep some bad secrets. I think that he has told you that if you tell anyone, he will hurt your Mum and then you’ll have to go and live with him. I think that your Mum is just as frightened of your Dad as you are and that’s why she has never told anyone about what he does to you all. You shouldn’t have to keep secrets like this. It isn’t fair on you, or your Mum. We will do our best to protect you. Will you let us help?’

It took a while but we both knew we had to be patient with them. The three exchanged glances and eventually Ray spoke.

‘He doesn’t hit Mum but he makes her cry and tells her how useless she is. He – he – hurt Angela and he said he was going to do the same to Suzanne when she is a bit older. He says it is his way of showing them how much he loves them and if we tell anyone he will pay for someone to kill Mum and he will get custody. He has lots of money and he can pay for a decent lawyer to make it look like we are the liars. If he tries to hurt my sisters I will kill him. I don’t care what happens to me.’

Ray’s croaky boy-to-man voice brought tears to my eyes. My manager took charge at this point. We had to get the police child protection unit involved and once the social worker was tracked down, she came in and took over supervision of the interviews.

The children had been through several different hells but as a consequence of their disclosures the court order was overturned, their father was arrested and once their mother realised that they were all safe, she gave an interview that confirmed everything her children said – and more.

Packing up their worldly goods to go home was one of the happiest tasks I had ever undertaken. It wasn’t the end of the story by any means but we had started the ball rolling and the social worker was arranging for counselling for the children and their mother.

Their father was remanded in custody. He had maintained his very professional coldness throughout, but when the alleged sexual abuse of Angela was brought up, he snapped and attacked the female detective conducting the interview. From the names he called her, and the threats he made,  it left no one in any doubt of the mental abuse he had inflicted on his family.

He was found guilty and imprisoned but who knows what lasting damage was done to those three children and their mother? Hopefully the counselling helped but that sort of support is expensive and when cuts have to be made in social care, aftercare and support of abused children is a low priority.

If there is any justice in the world then there should be a happy ending to this tale.